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Memo to Elites: It's Really Not So Bad!

By Marc J. Ambinder

We have some sense of the end-game now, and perhaps it is about time.

Some people say we're in a crisis that threatens the underpinning of our republic. Understandably, surrogates for Vice President Al Gore '69 and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have endorsed this posture of doom: Development "X" is allegedly bad for the country. Now, my own historical foresight is poor. But I'm not keen on the idea that we're heading for a political collapse, that a set of serious consequences will hurt this country.

With a few exceptions, whatever lasting effects this protracted election has will likely be, well, useful.

First, political discourse: Turnout was slightly higher this election, which is nice. But presidents don't have too much direct power over our lives now, and we tend to be more concerned with state property taxes than we do with most federal policies. So a 50 percent turnout rate isn't too upsetting.

But, more importantly, the aftermath of the election has been educational for bread-and-butter citizens. We've all been in our usual social niches and heard the unusual conversations. Voter intent! The difference between legitimacy and authority! Electoral College! Democratic Republics! The public square has become a Gov 10 section. Lollygaging in the Square last week, chatting on my mobile with my mother (in Florida) about the election, a kindly Cantabrigian interrupted me, seeking to correct my nuanced view of ticket splitting. Everyone is talking about politics. Most people haven't gravitated toward established poles of opinion. They are weighing, deliberating and choosing based upon the facts available. Public opinion polls show this temperance.

And thanks to the media, the facts are everywhere. As someone who wants to be a journalist, I find it cool that the national news media are devoting energy and resources to an actual news story. This is not J.F.K. Jr. or Princess Diana, but something real, with consequences for just about everyone. The so-called O.J. treatment--wall-to-wall coverage, intermixed with pundits and talking heads--is exactly right for what's happening. And there are three cable news networks to choose from, each with a different type of coverage. The media is playing its mediating role just right--it is questioning everything, sifting good information from bad,and helping to educate the public.

Because I think a Bush presidency would have more establishment legitimacy than a Gore presidency, I won't make reference to the chief executive's power to actualize his agenda. But 80 percent of the country say they'll nominally support whomever is declared the winner. As for the split Congress, my unsubtle view is that the 50-50 Senate has a moderate Republican bias. There is political capital for campaign finance reform. It might happen. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) could be wise to follow a pragmatic, moderate course of action if they want success in the 2002 midterm elections.

On a broader scale, this election may also prove a corrective to blind states'-rights activists. The federal government and its bureaucracy have a tendency to creatively and arbitrarily mess things up, but, as we've seen, devolving power to state and local officials doesn't solve the problem of homosapient-ism, which is to say that human beings have biases, perspectives, quirks, and make errors. (Theresa LePore, a Democrat, tried to help seniors read the ballot in Palm Beach by making the type-face bolder. In doing so, she had to re-arrange candidate's names. That might have cost her candidate the presidency.) Good intentions, unstable consequences. A fudged solution.

A few things that aren't so positive. Public mistrust of the media has been catalyzed by the quintessential display of competitive fear--an election night mistake with political agency. I'm not sure whether journalistic decision-makers will actually adhere to any self-imposed guidelines to not report election results until polls close (or until votes are counted). Competition and the Internet might make that unfeasable. Would you force yourself to wait until 8 p.m. to see who wins Florida in 2004 if it was already posted on Slate.com or The Drudge Report?

Other bad things: the legitimacy of U.S. think-tankers monitoring elections overseas will be diminished. "Chad" jokes will proliferate far beyond humor boundaries. And the 2004 election won't be nearly as exciting.

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